News media is biased — toward horse-race coverage

The New York Times | The Washington Post | Politico
Horse-race-style coverage of the 2012 election creates its own gravity, Ross Douthat argues in The New York Times:

There are plenty of stories circulating that might be expected to hurt Obama’s political prospects, but given the press’s horse-race biases none of them are powerful enough to pull the spotlight away from Romney’s flailings: They’re either big but not new enough (the lousy economy) or new but not big enough (the administration’s shifting Libya stories) to break through the campaign coverage.

Romney, he writes, should have taken this landscape into account:

As a presidential candidate part of your job is to be aware of how easily the horse race narrative can overwhelm whatever story you want the country to be hearing, and to do everything in your power to actively shape a narrative that will inevitably be shaped by the press’s zeal for “who’s up/who’s down” reportage as well.

But Douthat does worry expecting a candidate to shape his campaign this way isn’t good for “the press or the republic that it’s supposed to serve.” Thursday on “Diane Rehm,” Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei said horse-race coverage is “really important.” Erik Wemple was listening and transcribing:

And I think I get really nervous when I hear the monks of journalism say, ‘Well, we should just cover the facts and just cover the most serious policy issues.’ You’re going to have nine readers.

Wemple says VandeHei could be right, if the type of coverage Politico pumps out proves to be “correct and prophetic.” Interestingly, the top story Friday morning on Politico says Mitt Romney’s personality is to blame for the stories about his campaign’s ineptitude. It’s the horse-raciest psychological profile of Romney I’ve ever read (pleasing his father doesn’t enter into it until the penultimate paragraph!), pitting Romney’s deftness as an executive against the fact that “The candidate suit fits him unnaturally,” as a “top Romney official” put it.

Romney is cautious by nature, which paid off in business. But in politics, rather than chart a bold course and stick with it, he winds up trimming and dodging in ways that, cumulatively, sink in with voters.

If it’s not followed up later in the day with a photo gallery of contrasting photos that typify each of Romney’s warring psychological impulses, the monks have won.

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  • Anonymous

    But elections are horse races, one thoroughbred steed against another. Anyway, none of this is new. Many moons ago David Broder remarked that political reporters are basically fight promoters. Don’t know if he said that in regret or simply as a statement of fact. Come to think of it, elections are boxing matches. Or horse races. An election is a competition, hard to get around that. One person wins, the other loses. Dan

  • Anonymous

    This morning, NPR had as a lead story a 25-year-old video of Romney saying Bain “harvested” companies. As if he admitted he was choking puppies. Somebody tell the farmers! On the web site, NPR’s congressional editor seems to think there is something embarrassing about Romney’s saying the primary purpose of Bain is to make a profit. They are constantly running to Obama’s rescue and “correcting” Romney. With that kind of bias in the media going in, it’s an uphill climb.

  • Anonymous

    “Horse-race-style coverage of the 2012 election creates its own gravity”

    This is one of my pet peeves of journalists: They anthroporphize inanimate entities as is they can make decisions.

    In actuality, it is the overwhelmingly uniform decisions made by countless editors and reporters which creates the gravity. Thus, people have little choice. Just read this part of the narrative:

    “Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei said horse-race coverage is “really important.” Erik Wemple was listening and transcribing:

    And I think I get really nervous when I hear the monks of journalism say, ‘Well, we should just cover the facts and just cover the most serious policy issues.’ You’re going to have nine readers.”

    In other words, we don’t care if we fulfill our mission as journalists to empower the public to make informed decisions, we care most about how large are audience is.

    By the way, this is a trajectory that has been in existence for so long that the profit imperative of news media is now accepted as a given. People forget that being on the air was a privilege granted to companies that were to be guardians of the airwaves and exercise their responsibility to create an informed citizenry and make their profits on their non-news programming.